Pickleball and Soccer Share More Than You’d Think

Pickleball and Soccer Share More Than You’d Think

At first glance, soccer and pickleball couldn’t be more different.

Soccer’s history dates back thousands of years to the Han Dynasty; pickleball was invented in the 1960s. Soccer is primarily played with players’ feet; pickleball is a racquet sport involving “fast hands.” A soccer field is enormous at 81,000 square feet; a pickleball court is tiny at 800-880 square feet.

But look closer at the two, and you’ll notice some remarkable similarities – particularly from within the sports’ collective cultures and fandoms.

Both sport’s fans appreciate pro player skill firsthand.

Whether they played it in school or found it as young adults, soccer’s fans typically comprise people who have actually kicked the ball. Children around the world play pickup games in open fields and even in the streets.

We’re not quite at the point of pickleball running rampant among the youth, but the sport is demonstrably finding footholds in younger and younger circles.

In either case, both sport’s followers know their game isn’t as easy as it appears to non-players.

Both sports are incredibly accessible in every sense of the word.

“Accessible” is a general term, but every one of its specific uses applies to both pickleball and soccer.

Financial accessibility applies now more than ever before. In 2024, parents may spend an average of nearly $900 per year on one child’s sport.

Soccer and pickleball both demand less than $30 in initial equipment investment and enough know-how to track down the appropriate space (typically within a free-to-access park).

There’s accessibility in terms of a learning curve. Neither soccer nor pickleball can be mastered easily, but an absolute beginner can have fun at either during their very first session.

Gender equity and accessibility also deserve mentioning. Both sports feature powerful women’s teams and individual players. The US Women’s soccer team is widely recognized as one of the best in the world, while pickleball’s number one is 17-year-old Anna Leigh Waters.

Soccer and pickleball fans are remarkably patient.

Don't scoff: how many times have you heard of a “fair weather fan” in baseball, or seen a football (that’s American football) fan turn off a game they know will end poorly?

Related: Pickleball is Getting Dangerous

Meanwhile: soccer fans flock to the stadium to watch a near-scoreless game of passing and two or three shots on goal. Pickleball enthusiasts love a long, drawn out dinking rally of softly-placed, strategic shots.

One thing soccer has that pickleball doesn’t yet: proper stadium chants. But that will come in time.

Pickleball and soccer fans share an admiration for top players.

There’s a deep connection between soccer teams and their fans, who are also just as likely to worship individual players, too. Lionel Messi might be at Miami now, but he can go anywhere and still be adored by fans of different teams.

While pickleball isn’t quite at that point, the sport’s die-hard – almost cult-like – culture of recreational play should be recognizable to any footie follower.

Ben Johns, Anna Leigh Waters, and other top players are becoming household names within the community. Posts about these players garner some of the most engagement within pickleball groups and forums.

What Pickleball Should Learn from Soccer

I mentioned stadiums full of soccer fans earlier – but that’s a scene you’re more likely to see outside of the USA.

Internationally, soccer is unquestionably the most popular sport. In the US, though, it’s only the fourth most popular in terms of viewership.

Prior to the 1994 World Cup held across the United States, the host country didn’t even have a professional league.

This brings us to our final similarity: the battle pro pickleball is fighting for viewership is the same one soccer fought for American acceptance.

Bruce Bundrant of rEvolution sports marketing ran commercial operations for team-based pickleball league Major League Pickleball between April 2022 - July 2023. He also worked at DC United between 1997 - 2001.

“In those early years of Major League Soccer, our pitch to potential sponsors, media partners and ticket buyers was ‘Look how popular grassroots soccer is. It's obvious this groundswell of popularity will result in a successful pro league, so come out and support MLS.’

“This is the exact same narrative that I used at Major League Pickleball. ‘Pickleball has been America's fastest growing sport the past few years. It's obvious this trajectory of participation will result in a successful pro league, so come out and support MLP.’

While soccer may never be America’s most popular sport, it’s likely to get close.

In 2022, Major League Soccer signed a $2.5 billion deal with Apple TV. Fortune reports the 2022 FIFA World Cup final drew more viewers than the NBA Finals, the World Series, PGA Finals, Stanley Cup, and the Winter Olympics.

So what can pickleball, still comparatively in its infancy, learn from soccer’s success story in the US?

The mantra seems to be: invest in media.

Dan Lobring, senior vice president of Stretch PR, a global PR firm specializing in business and sports, says the dollars brought in via a media rights deals are a game-changer for any professional team.

“That's where they make the majority of their revenue, and that's why there is so much focus on making the TV product as sought-after, if not more so, than watching in-person,” Lobring says.

Read Next: The Calorie-Burning Power of Pickleball

“With international soccer, they are able to bring in large sums of media dollars, sponsorship dollars, ticket sales, etc., which in turn can be invested back into team/league/product to make it a better experience for all levels of fans.”

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